Thursday, 30 October 2014

Turn an idea into a story

Turning an idea into a story.

Yesterday I showed a simple way to come up with ideas. Now I'll quickly show how to 
develop one of those further.
 I'll take this one -'a bully locks the hero in a cave, to kill him for kicks.''

For me, a script is split into four acts, each about twenty five minutes long. Each of those acts is a story and should end decisively - so the first thing to do is work out what will happen at the end of those acts, your story points. 

So, clearly, the hero gets locked in the cave at the end of act one (25 minutes in). That's the story set up.

Next plot point will be him escaping, so let's put that at the end of act two (fifty minutes in). 

This is the most important break point. It corresponds exactly to the interval in a theatre. The audience is about to go off and have a drink for ten minutes. You make sure they come back, and talk about the play while they are gone, by dropping a plot twist just before the interval. (It corresponds to the midpoint in the traditional three act structure.)

Where do you go now? Again, I think this is pretty obvious - in the start of the next act, the hero locks the bully in the cave, for revenge. You don't want the villain escaping too - we've done that - so instead let's have the hero having a change of heart and, eventually, letting him out. So that's your third act.  

Why would he let him out? Well let's say the hero discovers more about the bully's difficult life, his abusive stepdad and so on. And understanding leads to sympathy.

And that gives us the platform for the last act - we'll use the abusive stepdad. So the bully and the victim will take him on together, and I guess, end up collaborating to shut him in the cave. And that'll be the story for the ending.

So that was easy. Now I have the main story beats. Now look at it and see how the beats further shape the story - if you're going to spend the whole of act 2 in a cave, better make it a network - so that it can explored - and full of traps and difficulties - going to be down there a long time. Aren't people going to be looking for the missing kid? yes, so let's set it somewhere very rural. Or set it a hundred years ago. We have this abusive stepdad who ends up giving us the ending - can't just have a character popping out of nowhere, so better make sure he's written in at the beginning. 

And once you've got the the plot points, start asking yourself a bunch of questions and 'what ifs' - what if it was set in the future? Or the distant past? What is the arena of the story - where is it set? How old are the characters? Change everyone's age and sex, see if it would work better that way. 

When you've decided on that, flesh out the characters. Add extra characters (only if you really need them) and (if it's really necessary) a subplot - and make sure that this all relates to the theme; in this case it's 'brutalisation' - so let's maybe add an abused pet dog or a war going on in the background or something.  

Easy. You don't have to have everything worked out before you start writing, but you ought to know at least the main plot points.    



Wednesday, 29 October 2014

come up with a genre film in two minutes

how to come up with a genre film.

this is really simple. Takes less than five minutes.

1) pick a villain. Anything, don't try to be too clever. Let's say - bully, ghost, doppleganger. Don't start with the hero - rookie error - the villain brings the story.

2) think of the villain's plan. Story doesn't start till the villain starts moving. So, for the above - this is off the top of my head... a bully wants to lock a victim in a cave for kicks. A ghost wants to revenge himself on the ancestors of the people who killed him. A doppleganger wants to take over a guy's identity then get all his doppleganger mates to come and take over everyone else in the town.

3) Is it time for the hero? No, this is the cunning bit. Think of the theme. It's one word. So for the bully one, let's say brutalisation, for the ghost one, revenge, for the doppleganger, identity. This is going to influence the way you tell the story and the way you pick a hero.

4) Okay, now, bearing your theme in mind, pick a hero who will get in the way of, or be the object of, the villain's plan. So for the bully one, it's going to be his victim. And for the ghost one, it's going to be the ancestor. For the doppleganger, a guy who finds his identity stolen. The hero needs to be active, to be in the way, and less powerful than the villain.

5) now, bearing the theme in mind, kick it about, develop it a bit - put some moral dilemmas in there, take it for a walk, build some twists...

* - a bully locks the hero in a cave, to kill him for kicks. The bully is himself brutalised by a horrible stepdad. The hero escapes and in the last act the hero and the bully collaborate to lock the brutal stepdad in the cave.

* A ghost is haunting the ancestors of the man who killed him. The descendants are innocent but not in the hero's mind. The hero realises that to break the curse he must prove that his ancestor was innocent.... but that means the ghost will instead start haunting the descendant of the real killer... and she happens to be a girl he's just fallen in love with. How can they break the curse before it kills her?

* a man has his identity stolen by a doppleganger - a creature who can impersonate him perfectly. He had a shit life anyway, and he enjoys this chance at a fresh start. But when he realises that the doppleganger has a wider plan - to breed lots more dopplegangers - he has to fight the guy. But that means retaking his identity.

Well, it's all pretty rough. But that took less than ten minutes and that's three ideas that could be easily worked up into films - because they have a solid foundation - antagonist, protagonist, villain's plan that has to be thwarted.

See how easy it is - and understand why writers roll their eyes when someone says, 'oh I have this great idea for a film...'  

Thursday, 23 October 2014

on dialogue

On Dialogue.

I love dialogue. I love writing it, reading it. I get into the characters by writing their voice. As a novelist it is the most powerful tool you've got. 

In a book, the more the characters speak, the better it is, generally. In the works of two of my favourite writers, Jane Austen and Elmore Leonard, you'll find more than fifty percent of the text is dialogue.

But as a screenwriter (I am learning) you need to be wary of it. 

It's so easy for it to be wrong, or clunky. It's tempting to use it to tell every story point. 

On screen the pictures trump the words. Generally, the less the characters speak, the better the film.

So as an exercise, I now go through my scripts imagining that technology has regressed, and this story has to be made as a silent movie. Suddenly all those plot points have to be told visually, how do you do it? 

A small example - I wrote a thief asking his mate to help him steal a car. They used to steal Twixes together as kids. The guy caves in a day later, and agrees. How to do it as a picture? Fella walks up to his mate, gives him half a Twix. I'm not saying that's great, but it's a picture replacing a speech. You can generally find dozens of places where you can do something similar.  

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Taking notes

Taking Notes
I just did a polish on a script. The generous producer took me to a fancy hotel and we hung out there and in bars, talking the shit out of the thing, going through it page by page. Fun and productive.
There is an art to taking notes. Lots of people will read your script and they will all have an opinion. Scripts are regarded as mutable, unlike prose works. They can always be made better. But it can get confusing reading all the notes - sometimes they seem vague, sometimes they contradict each other, sometimes they don't make sense.
But frustrating through the process is, it is usually valuable.
You'll learn where you have been clear - if someone hasn't understood something, you probably haven't explained it well enough. Defending points that you believe in gives you a much clearer idea of what your story is about.
The most useful working rules when dealing with notes is to remember that other people are, on the whole, good at finding problems and bad at finding solutions. A producer will give you a suggestion for a change and it is usually bad, but they are generally right in the sense that they have found a problem - even if they can't identify quite what it is. Your job is to see the problem that they think they are solving, and come up with a better solution.

Monday, 20 October 2014

how TIGER HOUSE got made

TIGER HOUSE originated with a conversation with director Tom Daley. He is a first time director and I said I would write something that he could shoot really cheaply, and we would apply for funding from the microwave scheme.

I said maybe something set in a wood - and he said no, that would be tricky, with changing light and weather. The absolute cheapest and simplest film you could possibly make would be set in a house - then the crew could live in it when they weren't shooting.

So working with that as the arena for the story, I came up with the idea of a tiger kidnap - that's where bank robbers take a bank manager's family hostage, in order to get the manager to rob the bank for them. So it would be a heist film but you would never see the bank. And then from there came the idea that there was someone in the house who wasn't meant to be there, the teenage son's girlfriend who snuck in. She would be hiding under his bed, but one of the robbers got injured getting in, and he would be put by his colleagues on top of the bed. She would be free, but in peril. So it's kind of Die Hard in a house, basically.

Anyway, with not much more than that, I wrote a trailer - you can see it here. Just something simple that sold the basic concept. A bit of youtube footage, some narration, some dramatisation from the local am dram group. And Tom shot it. That got lots of interest - before there was a script. Even from America. So barely a month after coming up with the idea we were going to meetings about it.

I learnt an important lesson there: producers will watch a two minute film much more readily than they will read a script. And they're visual people; like children, they get excited about moving pictures.

The script was finished, sold easily, and it was shot a couple of years later, in South Africa. Should be out in 2015.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

how to make a living out of screenwriting

guy asked me how to make a living screenwriting. This was my reply:

* write films that would be cheap to shoot. I asked a director what the cheapest possible location for a feature would be; I said that I thought a wood would be good. He said no, a wood would be tough, thanks to weather and light changes; he suggested a house. The crew could live in it when you weren't shooting. That's how TIGER HOUSE was born - it's basically Die Hard in a house; I wrote it thinking it could be shot for 100 grand - and there are things like the microwave scheme that fund films at that level. It's a lot easier to get a cheap film made than a pricey one. 

* write films with a strong central narrative, a set up that can be easily explained, featuring a cast of less than 10 people with one or two really strong parts (antagonist and protagonist, ideally).  

* actors get films made so write a juicy lead part that an actor would want to play. They don't want to play James Bond, they want to emote, they want to play people with issues to overcome, they want to do drama. They want to act. 

* having written your film write a really good synopsis and blurb for it - that is what producers will mostly read, they don't have time or inclination to read many scripts. Consider making a short, using youtube clips perhaps, with a bit of narration over the top, that sells the concept of your film. 

* Enter screenplay competitions and go for things like COMING UP (a Channel 4 scheme).

* read a good screenwriting blog. My favourite is sex in a submarine. There's a daily script tip section in there called script secrets, read those.

* meet up and coming directors and ally with them by looking around on, for example, shooting people - you will see lots of film school directors on here looking for short film scripts. Offer to write a ten minute short for them. And again, keep it simple, one or two guys in a flat say.